10 Existential Horror Novels to Make You Question Everything

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Addison Rizer


Addison Rizer is a writer and reader of anything that can be described as weird, sad, or scary. She has an MA in Professional Writing and a BA in English. She writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly and is always looking for more ways to gush about the books she loves. Find her published work or contact her on her website or at addisonrizer at gmaildotcom.

Existential horror is one of the more difficult to explain sub-genres in my opinion. One of those things you know based on a vibe but not necessarily by definition. So, for my own education and yours, I tried to nail down exactly what the existential horror genre entails. According to Game Rant, the genre explores human existence and the purpose of life, turning the anxieties and fears that come with the contemplation of those types of things. What does that mean in reality? That means characters are plagued by fear over if they’re real, if they have control over their fate, if their choices matter. It deals with ideas of identity, purpose, and meaning.

Existential horror can be both psychological and external, with changes in the world or the character’s worldview caused by new developments like aliens or a monster or a trip to outer space. This sub-genre tends to overlap with the cosmic horror genre which “explores the insignificance of human existence compared to the vast universe.”

If you like the dread of questioning who you are and what your purpose is, existential horror is for you. Check out these 10 existential horror novels to lean into those panic-filled late-night wonderings about how small we really are and what all of this thing called life is for.

Hammers on Bone cover

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

Private investigator John Persons doesn’t think twice when a 10-year-old boy hires him to kill his abusive stepfather. As Pearsons looks into the case, though, it seems his target isn’t as human as he seems on the outside. And he’s infectious. Now Persons is up against an otherworldly monster before it unleashes something dark in him too.

Cover of Anthony Shriek by Jessica Salmonson

Anthony Shriek by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

When Anthony meets Emily in the library at his art school in Seattle, he’s immediately intrigued by her. His dreams after meeting her turn in the strange and bizarre world called Nightland as his obsession with her grows. Not even her claims that they’re both demons can deter his love for her.

the cover of Winter Tide

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

After the government takes over Innsmouth and sends the People of the Water to camps in the desert, only Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb survive. Years later, though, the government needs Aphra’s help to find the source of rumors that a Russian agent gained access to body-switching methods they could use to damage the United States. Aphra accepts the request if only to learn more about her family history and what they lost.

Zone One book cover

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

In the aftermath of a pandemic, the population is divided into those who survived and those who became zombies. As those uninfected fight to reclaim Manhattan from their safe space called Zone One, Mark Spitz and the other sweepers trying to clean out the city encounter a different kind of zombies stuck in the past and lingering in the places that were important to them once. As he works to make space for them to live again, he has to face a world with different rules and a different job for humanity.

Cover of The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

Twelve contestants sign up for a reality TV show that will test their physical limits. With little information and a cash prize of $1 million, Zoo is among those who agrees to participate. Three weeks into filming, though, she stumbles on a body, but figures it’s all part of the psychological tests of the game. Then she finds more, and the world gets more and more uncertain as she realizes she might not have the safety of a crew and witnesses like she thought.

cover of The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

When street musician Charles “Tommy” Tester is roped into delivering a mysterious book to a woman, he jumps at the chance to make some extra money to take care of his dad. But the book makes him the target of two policemen, a plot to awaken a sleeping evil. While dealing with racism and police brutality, Tester is also plagued by an existential dread about capitalism and his place in the world.

cover of foe by iain reid

Foe by Iain Reid

Living on their isolated farm suits Junior and Hen just fine. But then a stranger arrives with a claim that the government has selected Junior to go to outer space. The stranger reassures them Hen will be taken care of, but neither of them are sure who to trust as things spiral out of control.

You Should Have Left cover

You Should Have Left. by Daniel Kehlmann

A screenwriter determined to write a sequel to his big-hit movie decides renting a house in the mountains is just the thing to beat his writer’s block. With his wife and their 4-year-old daughter, they enjoy the forest and the time away from their lives. But his solution doesn’t seem to be putting words on the page, and his family just might prove a bigger distraction than he can tolerate.

The City We Became cover

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

After one of the six avatars of New York is sent into a coma, the other five do their part fighting off the Enemy trying to take over the city. They’re all drawn to the sixth avatar whom they need to take up before their city crumbles. This homage to New York is full of love and purpose and the threat of losing it all.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc book cover

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

After James’ gambling problems get the better of him, he and his wife Julie decide moving into a new place is just the ticket. But as strange blotches appear on the walls and bruises appear on their skin, they doubt moving was such a good idea. As they investigate, the house gets more and more confusing, with hidden spaces they hadn’t seen before.

In the mood for more psychological horror? Check out these 8 modern cosmic horror books or these 5 books full of existential dread!